It's official: Lemoore City Council begins transition to district-wide elections

By Ed Martin, Editor
Lemoore Mayor Ray Madrigal
Lemoore Mayor Ray Madrigal

A substantial electoral change is heading Lemoore’s way. Since the city’s incorporation in 1900, Lemoore’s voters have elected their councilmembers on an at-large basis – elected by all city registered voters. At Wednesday night’s special council meeting, Lemoore’s local leaders set in motion a plan to scrap at-large voting and instead implement electoral districts.

All four councilmembers (Jeff Chedester was absent) voted to begin the process of moving to districts, and they must complete the process within 90 days.

Officially, the city council adopted a resolution declaring its intent to transition from at-large voting to district-based elections and outlined the steps needed to accomplish the dramatic electoral change.

A district-based election system will divide the city into separate districts, each governed by one councilmember who resides in an area. The electors within the district would vote for their councilmember.

The City must change the way council members are elected or face a lawsuit that could get expensive. At stake would be the city’s violation of the 2002 California Voting Right’s Act. Legal experts contend Lemoore’s at-large system “dilutes the ability of Latinos (a protected class) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of the city’s elections."

Many cities have spent millions of dollars fighting lawsuits and lost. “Not one city has prevailed in a lawsuit,” said Mayor Ray Madrigal citing the City of Palmdale, which spent $4.5 million to keep its at-large system – and then lost. “It would be foolhardy to keep fighting this … next November we’re going to have to run in districts. It’s what we’re up against.”

Other cities have faced similar challenges and faced with mounting legal bills have voluntarily shifted to district-based elections.

In most cities that face an impending lawsuit, a municipality is given 45 days to assess its situation, and then if it takes steps to move toward district voting, it has an additional 90 days to act.

Included in the transition period are five public hearings within the 90-day period, giving community members an opportunity to weigh in on the scope of the districts and sequence of elections.

“This gets us into a safe harbor,” said Lemoore City Manager Nathan Olsen. “All tonight does is allow us to move forward.”

The next steps are to get the word out to residents and set up a series of public hearings. The City will also hire a demographer to map out districts, which could get expensive. Olsen told councilmembers he already has someone in mind, narrowing a list of possible demographers to three. The Council ultimately gave him the authority to hire a demographer and get the ball rolling on the public hearings.

“We’ll need to get the word out,” said Councilmember David Brown. “We need to do our due diligence.”

Lemoore resident Tom Reed said the change is probably necessary, but warned members to apply common sense to the issue. “I would not like to see gerrymandering in these districts,” he said. “Where members live should not come into play.”

Gerrymandering is an effort to manipulate the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one person or political party.

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